Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dangerous Knowledge?

I had a strange experience recently. I was discussing the topic of spirituality with a group of people of various persuasions. Some of my interlocutors were religious, some not, some were “spiritual”, some not. The conversation was much like I would have predicted. Ideas about our spiritual nature abounded. What was “spiritual” and the various offshoots of that discussion. The thing that made the experience strange for me was the reaction that my personal viewpoint evoked. The reactions were a mixture of horror, disbelief and outright aggression.

I can understand people not liking my perspective. It is, I freely admit, quite depressing. In my opinion though, it also happens to be true. I don’t like the fact that the universe appears to be this way but it is the conclusion that I have come to by following the evidence. This recent experience has convinced me that sharing my ideas on the relevant topics is probably not a good idea. I don’t mean that in a self-defensive sense, this is not the first time people have not liked my opinion and I doubt it will be the last. I mean instead that I don’t do anyone any favours by presenting it. I think that if I manage to convince someone of the truth of it, I will have done them a disservice. There are some fictions that we collectively hold to that do us good, that may even be necessary for our societies to function.

I have, you may have noticed, neglected to express my viewpoint here. I don’t intend to. I am certain that there are other people out there who share my views, they are far from unique, but those who don’t are probably better off not having the debate. I have been repeatedly surprised during my life at how even quite intelligent and critical minds will shield themselves from ideas they don’t like for emotional reasons. I don’t say that as a criticism, it is an ability I am profoundly envious of. It is just one I don’t understand. I don’t seem to have any capacity for it. The minds are well equipped to rationalise or excuse the view they emotionally prefer too. Some people react particularly badly to unwelcome ideas. The more you bring evidence and argument in support of them, the more hostile the response. It seems almost like they can see the case being made and fear that if they hear too much more of it, they will be persuaded and they know they don’t want that. Few people have the ability to ignore evidence they find compelling. It is far easier to stop looking when the evidence is gaining strength than to try to dismiss it when it has become convincing.

It is important to stress at this point that I completely understand the reactions I received and can wholeheartedly sympathise with those who offered them. It is a while now since I lost the rather naive notion that all knowledge was good. The fact is, there are some things better left unlearned. I think this was the first time that I have ever presented an idea to people who were wholly unprepared for it. Not all were, but a few. It was completely different from any perspective they had heard before. Mostly such conversations on this kind of topic will be with people who have had at least some introduction to philosophy and the fundamental questions it raises. I am sure most of the people I discussed this with will just consider it a crazy belief of mine. A belief everyone should know is false on the face of it. I got the impression though that some part of them recognised that it might be true and wanted to banish it before it could plant any seeds in their minds.

It has got me to thinking on the danger of knowledge. Mostly when we think about dangerous knowledge we are talking about the knowledge of nuclear fission and the bombs we make and similar things. I think there may be a kind of knowledge that it is unwise to propagate, not for what it can be utilised for but just because it is inherently dangerous to human wellbeing.

If it sounds like I have stumbled onto some kind of doomsday notion above, I assure this is not the case. I think most people will have encountered some form of the argument at some time. The danger only really comes into it when people start to really believe it is true. I should also point out that the case is far from airtight. It might well not be true. Maybe we shouldn’t try to find out.

I am curious about what other people might consider dangerous or potentially dangerous knowledge/ideas.

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